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'Pakistan should gain an early lead against Argentina'

July 31, 2012

Pakistan showed character and responsibility to ensure they make a good start to the tournament. -Photo by AP

Salman Akbar is a veteran goal-keeper who made his debut for Pakistan’s hockey team in 2001. Termed by Olympian Shahid Ali Khan as one of the most hard-working players in the game, Akbar has won the 2005 Rabo Trophy and the 2010 Asian Games gold medal with Pakistan. He was adjudged the ‘best keeper’ in both events. Here, he gives his analysis of Pakistan's performance against Spain and previews the next match against Argentina which will take place on Wednesday at 23:00 PST.

In the end, it was a great performance by Pakistan against Spain on Monday.

After failing to achieve good results in the practice matches before the Olympics, the team showed character and responsibility to ensure they make a good start to the tournament.

Halting the Spanish Armada

There was a moment in the first half when two Pakistani players were shown the greencard and Pakistan were playing with nine players. I thought the Greenshirts had a lucky escape here as Spain failed to capitalise on the number advantage and punish Pakistan. Had it been the likes of Australia or Great Britain, they would not have let this opportunity slip, so Pakistan need to ensure they don’t make the same mistake in the future.??Pakistan’s defence played really well, with some good interceptions and tackles. They played with patience and almost every time they were under threat, all the players got behind the ball and worked as a unit. This, I believe, was the key to their performance.

Spain, meanwhile, should thank their goalkeeper Francisco Cortes for keeping the score-line 0-0 until the 45th minute.

In the midfield Waseem Ahmed handled the pressure with style. However, there was still some room for improvement. For starters, they very static in defence on several occasions and the defenders were caught ball-watching, which provided Spain with the opportunity to score their equaliser within a minute of Rehan Butt’s strike. Pakistan have to be very alert, especially after scoring a goal.??The build-up play from Pakistan has to improve. They failed to create chances that would threaten the Spanish defence, had a high ratio of shots missed and there was a lack of pressure on the ball-carrier.

Pakistan’s goalkeeper Imran Shah should forget about the goal he conceded and from now on, he should be under the bars with more aggression and confidence. Pakistan are playing with only one goalkeeper so Imran should get rid of the burden of the goal conceded against Spain and play with a free mind. ??Haseem Khan and Waqas Sharif should shed the tag of being juniors. They have gained a lot of experience over the last couple of years and it should show in their performance. Shakeel Abbasi gave a solid performance and last but not the least, Rehan did what everyone knows he is capable of.

Pakistan’s substitutions were timely and they should keep on mixing up the players in the remaining matches as well.

South American challenge

The match against Argentina is very crucial, not just for us but also the South Americans. Argentina lost to hosts Great Britain 4-1 and Pakistan will take to the field with greater confidence having drawn against a good team.

Argentina are ranked ninth in the world but this will be new day and a new match so there should be no complacency from Pakistan. While Argentina are a team we can beat with relative ease, Pakistan should be mindful that it’s not going to be a walk in a park. Argentina qualified for the Olympics after winning Pan-American Cup and had good preparation period wherein they played the final of Sultan Azlan Shah Cup only last month and lost by a slim margin (1-0) to New Zeeland. While Pakistan managed to beat them (4-2) in the first match in Malaysia, it will be a renewed challenge in London.

Argentina play a very physical game and are always on the lookout to break the attack of the opponents. In their build-up, Pedro Ibarra  – who remains their most important player – deploys the technique of playing high balls, which can be very effective for his team. He is also their go-to man for penalty corners. Imran Shah should keep an eye on the low left-hand side of the goal, since that is Ibarra’s favourite angle.

Argentina play pressure hockey and create their attacks mostly with some individual play. Their defence remains a weak point but when they defend as a unit, the South Americans are extremely hard to break down. While defending, they put the maximum number of players on the ball so transferring the ball will be a key area against them.

Pakistan should start the game with running press and not allow Ibarra to be the part of their build up. Pakistan should try to gain an early lead to try and force Argentina to come out to level the score, which will give lot of space to the men in green to attack.

Argentina are not good on their left side so most of Pakistan’s attack should be from our right-hand side, with some overlaps from our right-half and right midfielder. Pakistan should play a zonal game in deep defence since Argentina are capable of creating off-the-ball moments to create the space. Here, once again, communication will be key to defend their attacks. As I said before, Argentina smash the balls in the circle for their inter-player connection so Pakistani defenders have to be in the frontal position.

Formation and team selection

Pakistan should play with three strikers once again but in the midfield, they should keep an extra man who can turn into an attacker while building up and revert to being a midfielder while defending. This tactic will also help Pakistan create a good running press. Shakeel Abbasi is the best man for this job as he can also overload the right side to attack more from there.

Our midfield should remain same as Waseem did a great job against Spain and we need him to remain on the field for as long as possible. Rizwan Junior should play right-half as he is an attacking option and Sohail Abbas should play as a free man in the deep defence with Muhammad Irfan as a marker. Imran Shah has to be very alert as his support can make the game very easy for Pakistan. Penalty-corner defence should be alert for the indirect variations. Here, Rizwan Senior and Irfan are doing a good job as first-runners. For Pakistan, Sohail is still the best choice as a drag-flicker but Pakistan should try indirect variations or use Muhammad Imran or Mohammad Tauseeq for the first shot. This will also force the remaining opponents to work on the penalty corner attack.

Pakistan should not lose a single point from this game otherwise they have to make up for it by taking full points from against the hosts and Australia, which won’t be easy. It is important that they count on each other, don’t come under pressure  and work their socks off until the last second of the game.

Players to watch

Shakeel Abbasi, Umar Bhutta and Muhammad Rashid